The internet can seem like a vast pool of all kinds of resources free for the taking. The reality is that if you don't do your homework, you could end up in hot water.
Copyright law has been around a long time, and it applies equally to the internet as to any other medium.
I don't want to go into the ins and outs of music or video piracy and user rights, but want to look at copyright more from the perspective of businesses and other organisations that use the internet.
A week or two back, I was investigating some issues with a client's web site, and in the process I came across another web site that had blatantly used one of my photos without authorisation.
The photo in question was one I had posted on the popular photo sharing site Flickr. Flickr allows photographers to share their material for other people to enjoy, but also allows them to specify what rights they want to retain over their photos. I am quite happy to let people enjoy some of my photos on a site like Flickr, but I generally want to retain full rights over my intellectual property.
I notified the owners of the site concerned, with several options, and after nothing appeared to be happening I notified their hosting provider. Eventually the offending image was removed.
There are two morals that come out of this story. One, if you publish material anywhere on the web where it is publicly accessible, expect people to try to exploit it, and if you value your intellectual property, be prepared to take action against offenders.
The second moral, is that if you are using material from the web yourself, just because you can access it, do your homework and find out whether you can make use of it. The offending web site in the case I've illustrated may have made the mistake out of naivety or it may have been a deliberate act of theft, I'll never know, as they never responded to me.
I've been on the other side of the intellectual property and copyright fence when I was making a DVD. I needed some backing music for the DVD, but I was on a limited budget. While I have a large collection of music I have legally purchased and downloaded, it's only licensed for my own personal use.
After some extensive research, I finally managed to track down some royalty free music online, that I could use with a clear conscience, and without fear of legal action or the copyright police coming knocking at my door. Sure it took some effort, but at the end of the day it was worth it.
There is actually a lot of free content available on the internet, but you always need to check the terms and conditions of use. Some free material may only be used for non-commercial purposes, other material may require that any derivative works are also free. Sometimes paying a small amount to license material can actually be less restrictive than using free material. There's also a lot to be said for something as simple as contacting the copyright owner and asking for permission. Whatever the situation, it always pays to do your homework.